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Student Perspectives on First Year Engineering Education.

Linda Forsey and Kate Marshall University of Hull, Applied Statistics Centre Gavin Cutler and Susan Pulko University of Hull, Department of Engineering



The purpose of this research is to try to gain an understanding from a student perspective for the reasons for withdrawal amongst Engineering students experiencing progression difficulties, and to explore whether this decision was influenced by a difference in expectation to reality. It also strives to assess student awareness and perceived effectiveness of support strategies implemented by their universities. In this paper, interim qualitative data is presented following a local focus group and subsequent telephone interviews. The survey amongst students from the other PROGRESS consortium universities is ongoing and at this stage the number of responses is too small to complete the quantitative analysis and explore correlations. 2 INTRODUCTION

This research was commissioned by the PROGRESS FDTL3 project to complement the academic community perspective gained in the initial project survey (see Cutler & Pulko, these proceedings). This nation-wide telephone survey of academics had already been undertaken, which reported academic's views of the problems encountered by engineering students, and outlined the support strategies in place in each of the institutions. The research currently ongoing is to seek the student perspective and offer feedback on which strategies the students have identified as being most effective. 3 METHODOLOGY

3 Focus Group An initial focus group was set up in Hull to establish the issues that were pertinent to the research and frame the questions for the subsequent telephone interviews that were planned with students from other consortium universities. 12 students had been identified as having progression difficulties and were invited to attend a local focus group. Six students agreed to attend the focus group and four students actually attended. A further four students agreed to be interviewed by telephone. Qualitative data was therefore available from 8 students. 3.2 Telephone Survey The telephone survey is intended to be a census of students (from each of the five other universities in the consortium) who have withdrawn from their Engineering course during 2000-2001. This is anticipated to be approximately 100 students in total. Each of these will

be interviewed by telephone, the interview lasting for approximately 15 minutes. Each student will be contacted on five occasions before being classified as a non-respondent. The interview will comprise both closed and open-ended questions relating to their on-course and post-course experience. 4 INITIAL FINDINGS

The following key points have been gathered from the survey so far, which includes responses from students at the University of Hull, Brunel University, Sheffield Hallam University and the University of East Anglia. 4.1 Problems and difficulties identified by students

4.1.1 Mathematics The level and amount of mathematics included in engineering degree courses was identified as a problem by most students, some students only had GCSE level and it was estimated that the level being taught was A level or above. They also stated that before they started the course they had not been aware of the amount of mathematics that was involved in the course or the level that would be required; some expressed feelings of being misled over this. They also stated that the pace of the course was too quick (both generally and specifically in mathematics). There was limited explanation about the application of the mathematics taught to engineering, so students were not sure about the relevance of the mathematics to their subject. 4.1.2 Practical course content Students commented that the Open Day had not accurately reflected the reality of the course content in terms of balance between the amount of practical and theory. Some found difficulty adjusting to a different delivery mechanism for the learning (having been used to college assignments, they found particularly that the university course involved more lectures). 4.1.3 Workload The time commitment of the course was cited as an issue by some of the students, and it was commented in the focus group that an increase in coursework towards the end of the semester left little time for revision. Supplementary remedial Mathematics classes exacerbate this problem, it was stated. 4.1.4 Tutors Some students felt they couldn't ask questions during lectures because of the number of students attending, and also that tutors were not able to explain things to suit their level of understanding. Lack of access to tutors was also mentioned as a difficulty, or that there were no pre-designated times set aside where tutors were available. 4.1.5 Other aspects not specifically related to engineering Financial problems and distraction from work due to social activities were mentioned.

4.2 Awareness of Support Mechanisms and Perceived Effectiveness The students interviewed were asked questions designed to show their awareness of strategies used by the universities to enhance progression, and also to allow them to suggest strategies that they thought would be useful. They were then presented with a list of strategies that academics from the consortium universities had identified, and some options, which students in the focus group had identified, that they would like to have been offered. They were asked to state whether, each of the support mechanisms offered to them, and if they had found it useful, or would have been useful had it been offered. Those scoring 7 or above (out of 10) were classified as having found that strategy useful. Table 4.2 - Support mechanisms identified by students as helpful and those that they thought would be helpful if offered Students Students Students 1.1 Support mechanism Students who thought stating that who found stating that it would be this strategy this strategy it useful was not offered useful was offered (%) (Number) (%) (Number) Combined Personal 10 90 1 100 and Academic tutors Time-tabled availability for 9 66.7 2 50 tutors Smaller teaching 7 85.7 4 100 groups/seminars Compulsory tutorials for all 8 62.5 3 66.7 subjects Supplementary/extra tutorials 7 85.7 4 75 for difficult subjects Tutorials run by post-graduates 6 50 5 20 rather than lecturers Maths tuition by an engineer 7 57.1 4 50 rather than a mathematician Maths taught as part of 9 66.7 2 0 engineering modules Time-tabled `drop-in' maths 6 50 5 60 sessions Specific maths modules at the 10 70 1 0 beginning of course Ongoing maths modules during 7 57.1 4 25 the semester 8 62.5 3 100 Problem based learning, for example learning through practical project work Group working/collaboration 8 62.5 3 0 Having more examples to work 10 40 1 0 through Modules linked to work 5 60 6 33.3 situations Hands-on design work for 10 80 0 0 example building projects

Examples worked through during lectures More emphasis on the application of the theory Web-based modules or tutorials Foundation course to get everyone to the same level Study skills/Communication skills modules Testing at the beginning of the course with feedback Individual monitoring during the semester Individual monitoring with feedback Weekly progress tests Testing specifically in mathematics with feedback Counselling after a few weeks Continual assessment Less coursework at the end of the semester Revision sessions at the end of the semester Exams spread out during the year Supplementary vacation work for extra marks Attendance monitoring The opportunity to give feedback on the course to the university

NB This table reflects only the current partial data set

11 8 8 8 11 6 6 5 1 6 6 5 4 10 5 3 5 9

81.8 50 62.5 87.5 27.2 66.7 83.3 40 0 66.7 33.3 60 50 70 100 33.3 40 55.6

0 3 3 3 0 5 5 6 10 5 5 6 7 1 5 8 6 2

0 33.3 66.7 66.7 40 60 50 40 80 60 50 42.8 100 20 37.5 66.7 0



5.1 Timescale It was hoped that students would be contacted as soon as possible after the end of their first year. This was primarily because the difficulties they had faced would be uppermost in their minds and they would be better placed to give specific details, but also in order to contact them before they returned home or went away to travel etc. Students whose progression difficulties have led to them leaving the consortium universities may now have moved from their home addresses either to study at a different university or to take up employment, so may be less easy to locate. 5.2 Data protection concerns Some consortium partners have expressed concerns over student details being passed to a third party, namely the Applied Statistics Centre. This has led to students from some of the universities being unavailable for interview, reducing the total sample size.

As a pragmatic strategy to circumvent these concerns, some consortium partners have made the initial contact with identified students to gain their consent to a further telephone interview conducted by a specified member of the ASC. 5.3 Organisational Response to Confidentiality Some institutions have expressed sensitivity that their organisations might be seen in a negative light as a result of the research ­ even though the data was aggregated and anonymised. 5.4 Reaction of students In the recruitment for the initial focus group in Hull (to facilitate design of the subsequent questionnaire) and in all the telephone interviews no adverse reactions from students have been encountered. In fact, students have been surprisingly willing to participate, and have expressed the opinion that talking about their difficulties has proved helpful to them.



At present, it is early in the research to predict the final outcomes, as only the first stage has been completed. The research will continue with further quantitative interviews undertaken with students from a range of institutions. These findings, however, do suggest that there are several salient areas of concern to students early in their academic careers, which may lead to progression difficulties: 1. mathematics (most students cited mathematics as the least enjoyable and most difficult aspect of their course) 2. unmet expectations relating to the amount (lack) of ­ practical problem solving or handson applications included in the course 3. workload preconceptions and coursework intensity are a worry 4. lack of access to /communication difficulties with tutors 5. financial problems faced by some students It is important that strategies employed by academic departments to mitigate attrition are cognisant of these concerns.


Student Perspectives on First Year Engineering Education

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